A Q&A with Leigh Thompson about working creatively in teams
“The teams that can meet the creative challenges posed to them are the hallmark of the most successful organizations,” writes Leigh Thompson, the J. Jay Gerber Professor of Management and Dispute Resolution at the Kellogg School, in a new book published by Harvard Business Review Press.
Yet, she argues, most of the time collaboration fails to live up to its potential, largely because teams fall victim to pervasive myths about how to succeed. Drawing on hundreds of studies, Thompson shows what the latest research actually says about collaboration and lays out step-by-step instructions for putting it to work.
The book’s title—Creative Conspiracy: The New Rules of Breakthrough Collaboration—is a nod to the fact that, as Thompson puts it, working creatively can involve some subterfuge. “There are a lot of organizational forces that you need to work to remove in order to be creative,” she says. “The really smart leader or manager needs to be prepared to pull the rug out.”
One built-in challenge to working creatively in teams is that individuals are inherently more creative than teams, at least according to more than six decades of research. But because collaboration is essential to many organizational objectives, we cannot simply do away with teams. Unless one person really does “have the talent and depth of knowledge necessary to do the whole thing,” Thompson says. In which case, “Please don’t create a team just for the sake of creating a team. People hate that.”
Thompson spoke with Kellogg Insight about the book, about some of collaboration’s biggest myths, and about how to handle conflict within teams.
Kellogg Insight: You mention in the book’s introduction that getting into competitive cycling a few years ago helped you realize something about successful managers. What was that?
Leigh Thompson: It’s about putting yourself in a situation where you’re very low on the learning curve, very uncomfortable. It’s about thinking, “I should just do what I’m good at” versus looking at yourself as someone who might have untapped potential and not knowing how deep it could go.
My whole experience training as a cyclist made me less afraid to try something completely new. I got lucky because I had a hint I might have potential, and when you have potential and some process is starting to help you unlock it, that’s really exciting. That’s the way I think about creativity: I think a lot of companies are doing great, but they have so much more potential.
KI: Chapter One is called “Debunking Myths About Creativity,” and in it you lay out a list of widely held but false beliefs including “Active brainstorming is necessary to generate ideas” and “Striving for quality is better than striving for quantity.” Which myth do you find most fascinating?
Thompson: Myth number one is “Teams are more creative than individuals.” This has always been a conversation stopper. If you want to throw a bomb into a classroom, all you have to do is say that teams are inferior to individuals when it comes to creativity and people will get defiant. Anytime social science is saying something that’s not obvious, it’s fun.
KI: Why are these myths about collaboration so pervasive? Can’t companies see when things aren’t working?
Thompson: Unfortunately, most people consider themselves experts at collaboration. Everybody knows about groups because we’ve all grown up in groups. Consequently, we never look critically at our knowledge of teams. If I’m trying to do a complex economic problem, I’m out of my comfort zone, and I realize I’d better not rely on my own intuition. But with collaboration, a lot of times people rely on their gut.
In a lot of cases, intuition is spot on. If you’re working on a team that’s doing heart surgery or flying a plane from Miami to New York, I don’t think that’s a creative endeavor and you definitely don’t want to follow the policies in this book. But in the creative situation—where people are trying to think of a new product or service or idea—you want to set the table very differently. That’s why the research evidence that an outside facilitator is useful is so valuable.
KI: You devote a chapter of the book to conflict, which I think can be one of the hardest things for people to deal with. You differentiate between benign and malignant conflict. Can you explain the difference?
Thompson: Benign conflict focuses on the substance of the problem, not the people espousing the argument. The classic example of being hard on the problem and soft on the people is scientific debate. If scientists are in a fierce debate, they don’t typically say to one another, “You’re stupid.” Rather, they focus on the evidence and they attack the data.
The malignant type of conflict is where people attack the person making the argument. They question their intentions, their integrity, their motivations. Academics exemplify benign conflicts all the time. People present their research, and other people will point out the flaws in the data, the theory, and everybody supposedly will conclude the meeting better informed. But if someone raised their hand and said, “I think you’ve fabricated your data,” or “You don’t seem very smart,” that would be malignant.
KI: How can non-academics get better at this?
Thompson: Try this exercise: the next time someone attacks your idea, try to state what you think their argument is. Try stating their argument even more forcefully than they have stated it. However, resist getting personal. Instead, offer to share how you arrived at your belief. Focusing just on arguments and data—and setting aside personal feelings—takes some practice, like playing piano or riding a bike. I tell my students and managers all the time to have pointed conversations. The more you do that, the better you get at it.
KI: In talking about conflict, you present the idea of “The Mismanagement of Agreement,” in which people fall victim to groupthink and make a decision that everyone individually believes is wrong, but they all go along with it. This reminded me of a recent story in the New York Times in which a group of expert backcountry skiers fell victim to a similar type of groupthink and ended up facing a deadly avalanche. No one wanted to be the one who spoiled the fun, and everyone thought they were the only one who was worried. Why does this type of behavior happen?
Thompson: In the avalanche example, everyone thought, “I’m not going to be the one to rock the boat.” When you have perceived experts in the group, that leads to self-censoring and can create pluralistic ignorance: “No one else seems to be alarmed about the potential avalanche, so there must be something wrong with me.”
If you have a group in which everyone seems to be in agreement, that’s a signal that you’re going to have to do some work. You either need to appoint a devil’s advocate or invite an outsider in who’s going to disagree with you.
I’d also suggest people refrain from stating their opinions early on. It’s hard for people to change their mind once they’ve stated it publicly. People don’t like to appear indecisive.
One of the cardinal rules of brainstorming is to eliminate judgment of ideas. But there’s recent research evidence indicating that brainstorming groups that engage in open debate, challenging each other in benevolent ways, perform better than groups that don’t have any debate at all. Managers often tell groups not to criticize each other, but the data actually suggests that debate helps the creative process.
KI: Why are we so averse to conflict?
Thompson: I think conflict is a natural part of being a human being. What’s top of mind on an emotional level are the conflicts we’ve had in our lives. Those things scare us. Malignant conflict can kill a relationship. We don’t grow up with the innate ability to engage in healthy debate. There are so many examples where we’ve seen conflict in a very dysfunctional fashion.
KI: You see the “conflict sweet spot” as a solution. What is this, exactly? How much success have you had in implementing it?
Thompson: You don’t want to always be debating. Even if you and I are having benign conflict, at some point we need to be doing other things. In one study done in a hospital, they found that moderate amounts of benign conflict have the best outcome in terms of productivity. I decided to call it a “sweet spot.” Avoiding conflict isn’t good; debating each other all the time is not that good either. You want to have a moderate amount.
KI: What kind of reaction have you gotten to the book so far?
Thompson: I gave it to a good colleague of mine in the CIA. He wrote to me saying the thing he liked best was the part about picking the right people for the creative team.
That was the hardest thing for me because I’ve shied away from studying personality, and in this chapter I forced myself to sit down and read the research on personality and intelligence. He really liked this because he often struggles with what types of people to hire. Should you hire an extrovert or introvert? Someone who is highly conscientious or low? An idealist?
KI: Well, whom should he hire?
Thompson: I can’t say whom an organization should hire in general, but when it comes to the creative enterprise, I use the acronym SCIENCE as a guide to whom we should put on the creative team. SCIENCE: situationists (rather than absolutists), curious people, idealists, extroverts, non-anxious people, low-need-for-closure people, and people who are open to experience. Those may sound pretty theoretical, but in fact, a validated personality test exists for each of those qualities.
KI: You have conducted research on how to take information from lectures or readings—or interviews like this one—and actually remember it. That would be a nice thing to leave us with, if you don’t mind sharing.
Thompson: I've spent the majority of my research career at Kellogg examining the question of how to transfer knowledge from the classroom to the real workplace. In Chapter 8, I present the golden nuggets. I spell out the "inert knowledge" problem, the heartbreaking problem of knowing something but failing to call it to memory. Knowledge is more accessible when it is connected to our real-world experiences. But it is not enough to merely connect it to one single, memorable experience—the key is to generate two to three examples that all embody the same principle.
Republished with permission from Kellogg Insight, which is published by the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. For more, visit insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu